Blog by Fife Explorer
When the tide is at its lowest, and the early morning light rises over the sandy beach, the rugged rocky coastline beckons as the light cool wind encourages a walk along the low water mark towards Dysart. Sparking childhood memories, Pathhead sands, Ravenscraig beach and Kirkcaldy harbour have evolved significantly over the last half century influenced by a strong industrial past that began during the 1800s, then as the industry declined last century, they became much quieter places where people walked or just stopped to reminisce and watch or contemplate the past. Earlier in time, Ravenscraig Castle (Ancient name, Ravensheugh) and the surrounding estate that became Ravenscraig Park formed an early formidable fortress built in the 1400s by King James II to withstand canon fire, then became the prominent family home of the Sinclair’s who were strong supporters of the Jacobite cause.
Parking the car at Pathhead foreshore, I remember in my early years, my Grandfather who lived in Coal wynd, (a stone-throw from the harbour) would walk me round the bustling harbour quayside. Mobile cranes unloading ships laden with cork and jute for the local linoleum factories, grain for Hutchison’s flour mill and Ballantynes Whisky serviced by heavy lorries, and loading coal for export from the local mines at Seafield, Frances, the Michael transported to the harbour in wagons pulled by steam locomotives; the various drivers, dockers shouting friendly greetings to us as we dodged round the mayhem. Today’s health and safety a figment of the imagination.
Behind the pier, Pathhead sands swept along the foreshore towards the ruined Ravenscraig Castle sitting proud above the cliff. I recall family visits and summer picnics here. A grassy bank behind the sandy beach where beach grass grew forming small, secluded pockets popular for picnics. Ravenscraig beach beyond the castle was also a busy sandy beach. Behind Pathhead sands the linoleum factories and gardens of the tenement houses on Nether Street above dropped down the slope to the beach. Access to these beaches then from Nether Street or Ravenscraig Park via the old, stepped accesses that still exist today. The link between these beaches was, and still is the cantilevered concrete pathway now a fraction of its former self that runs around the foot of the castle cliff - at high tide the seawater would lap below the walkway.
Years of coal mining since deposited mine waste into the River Forth estuary and destroyed these sandy beaches covering them with washed up shingle waste to a depth of around three metres burying the golden sand for ever. Thankfully since the tipping stopped in the 1970s, the sand is slowly returning, and the shingle is disappearing. The concrete pathway is now largely buried below shingle, once it crossed the openings to two tidal caves, one has been buried, and the larger can still be seen but the tide can no longer enter.
During the 1970s, the factories closed and were demolished making way for the access road from Nether Street to be built down to the beach. Landscaping and land reclamation along Pathhead Sands followed and there has since been further development of the carparking and picnic areas. The harbour became a desolate wasteland as shipping into Kirkcaldy diminished following the demise of the industries it fed. Presently, quayside housing development has taken the place of the old storage sheds and railway sidings. The flour mill now owned by Carr’s has rejuvenated the harbour with ships returning to the port to serve the mill, and leisure craft and small fishing boats now adorn the outer basin.
The beaches are popular with modern day walkers and families and views of the Kirkcaldy waterfront and south to Edinburgh and the Lothians are an attraction not to mention the comings and goings of cargo and cruise ships in the estuary. In recent years increasing sightings of visiting sea mammals such as dolphins, porpoises, and even hump-back whales are attracting great interest. Seabird life is abundant especially at low tide when a large variety of species can be seen such as oyster catcher, curlew, cormorants, terns, gulls, waders etc.
Beyond the castle a more adventurous beach walk from the car park is possible at low water mark to Dysart harbour, however if the tide is on the return, it will be necessary to climb the steps at the old round doocot (Dovecot) above Ravenscraig beach into the park where the coastal path can be followed to Dysart. Ravenscraig Park, originally the lands belonging to the Castle that later became the eloquent landscaped gardens of the Dysart House estate belonging to the famous Nairn linoleum manufacturing family in Kirkcaldy. Now the convent of the Carmelite Order, Dysart House sits behind St. Serf’s Tower at Dysart harbour. Michael Nairn gifted the gardens to Kirkcaldy town in 1929 to be used as a public park. There are a few vantage points along this path to observe panoramic views over the River Forth estuary to Edinburgh and the south, or west along the Fife coastline.
When the tide permits an exciting ramble can be had over the rocky outcrops along the low water mark although be prepared to exit the beach through one of several gateways in the high stone wall that follows the high-water mark boundary between the park and the beach. The park path and the beach converge just west of Dysart harbour at a grassy shore area and continuing through a small tunnel carved in the cliff presents an unique introduction to the historic Dysart harbour.
The harbour once a major port exporting local salt, coal etc to Holland where returning ships were laden with the red pantiles seen today on the older houses of Dysart and other Fife towns and villages. The inner harbour was constructed within a former quarry where it is said the stone for the building of Ravenscraig Castle and the original Dysart House was extracted. Evidence of the quarry can be seen at the side of the harbour being a high vertical rock face at the top of which there is a walkway that can be accessed from the harbour and leads into the Park. During the 1700s the harbour, accesses around it and the estate ownership rights were the subject of disputes and agreements between the Sinclairs and the Burgh Councils.
Today the harbour is home to a fleet of small fishing boats and leisure craft, and it is a popular point of historic interest and a filming location for programmes such as Outlander. The row of restored houses known as Pan Ha’ adjacent to the harbour beside St. Serf’s Tower reflect the traditional Scottish architecture that existed in earlier times when the harbour prospered as a commercial port.
Dysart House today just east of the harbour is located on the site of an older house built by the Sinclairs of Ravenscraig in the 1500s that fell to a fire in 1722 and was rebuilt by John Sinclair, a Jacobite, in 1726.
St.Serf’s tower is part of an ancient church associated with adjacent natural caves now enclosed within the Dysart House grounds, which were a place of pilgrimage as they were regarded as the retreat of St. Serf in the early 500s.
Perhaps just a pleasant coast walk, but with a little curiosity, lesser-known intrigue is uncovered that encompasses many interesting features along this short section of the Fife Coastal Path. A spare hour or so will awaken interests in wildlife, geology, history, or just enjoy the outdoor experience combining land, sea and fresh air, and may entice the photographers and artists among us!
Go on, take the walk and contemplate how you remember the past here, how much of the history do you know about or perhaps you have learned a bit more?
https://www.historicenvironment.scot Look up Heritage Search and search for “Dysart House and Ravenscraig Park”